If Avengers: Infinity War proved one thing, it's that Marvel and Disney together can just print money. But another thing it showed, along with the incredible build-up through the MCU, is that Thanos is not to be trifled with. He was a hyped villain and man, did he live up to that hype.
Looking to the future, audiences are going to be wondering what could possibly be next, what can trump Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet? But before you speculate about tomorrow, let's give yesterday a nod and appreciate a few of the underrated villains of the past who have been seemingly written off by history. They may not be as powerful as Thanos, but these folks were special in a different way.
Red Skull in Captain America (1990)
Captain America is so heroic in Infinity War his face had to explode in a manly beard just to try to contain it all. But he wasn't always that way. A mere 28 years in the past, Captain America was on the silver screen, or at least some TV screens, in a rubber suit opposite a very Italian Red Skull who spends most of Albert Pyun's movie with not so much a red skull as what looks like the world's worst case of rosacea.
Now sure, in the MCU, Red Skull keeps his face hidden for quite a while as well; you can't just walk around looking like someone sandblasted your face off with Kool-Aid powder. But at least Hugo Weaving's Red Skull is actually a German, and when his face came off, the effects were pretty decent and looked like a skull that was red. But 1990's Skull, played by Scott Paulin, has been much maligned for having none of these qualities, while the movie itself is considered a joke.
It's worth noting that 1990's Red Skull at least had the good sense to evolve. He tried to fix his gnarly face between World War II and the present, because who wants to walk around with a red skull as a face all the time? It's hard to be an international criminal when you can be picked out of a crowd of thousands at a glance. Also, he became an international criminal. His commitment to the Nazi Party was short-lived, he looked for newer, better opportunities. He was a go-getter.
By the time Steve Rogers returned from being frozen for half a century, Red Skull was literally a mafioso. That's almost too brilliant a move. He started a family and now dabbles in super-villainy, but in a way that's much easier to understand for the average viewer: He did it for money! Or he did a lot of it for money. He's anti-environmentalism and pro-war and he apparently killed Kennedy. That's a villain.
Rico in Judge Dredd (1995)
A comic book movie based around Sylvester Stallone seemed like a good idea in the 1990s. Maybe things went off the rails a little bit with Judge Dredd not fully appreciating the source material, and including comedy sidekick Rob Schneider, and giving Stallone blue contact lenses... but it did get one thing right — Rico, played by Armand Assante.
Armand Assante should be in every movie that needs a villain. If he can't be the villain, he should be the villain's sidekick, because no one is villainous like Armand Assante is villainous. He sounds like he gargles gravel and he doesn't speak so much as yell at different volumes. He looks like his alarm clock kicks him in the face every day to wake him up, and then he spends the rest of the day bitter that you stole his promotion.
We learn that Rico and Dredd used to be close, but that Rico went rogue and then, double twist, Rico and Dredd are made from the same DNA that was supposed to produce the perfect Judge. They're both kind of psychotic, but never mind that because this just became the movie Twins!
Stallone was widely criticized for overacting in this role, and Assante absolutely chews the scenery, and now it even makes sense in light of the plot because they're supposed to be the same guy. They genetically overact, it was a conscious decision! That's both bold and hilarious and, if none of that sells you, Rico also has a giant robot Hulk of a sidekick that's by far one of the coolest things to come out of '90s comic book movies.
The Violator in Spawn (1997)
1997's Spawn was the first and only Image comics movie to hit the big screen. If any property could hope to challenge Marvel and DC, it was this one. It didn't do that at all. But there was a lot of hype and expectation around the release of Image's biggest character in his very own movie, right up until people saw it and kind of hated it.
Spawn's creator, Todd McFarlane, has been promising a reboot of Spawn for years that does a better job of capturing the horror feel of the book. But let's not discount this original film out of turn. While the story may have been somewhat uninspired, the film's saving grace is absolutely the mind-throttling union of CGI, makeup, and John Leguizamo that produced The Violator.
John Leguizamo the man is thin and dark haired and of an average human height. The Violator is a clown from Hell who seems to be around 4-feet tall and 3-feet wide with grey Krusty hair. Then he turns into a mouth with arms and feet, but forget about that. The clown is what sells this whole movie. Leguizamo spends nearly the whole runtime as a knee-high, chubby demon who at one point spontaneously morphs into a cheerleader complete with pom-poms, and at another visibly farts. He visibly farts!
Leguizamo jumped into this role with both feet. He put everything on the table and made one of the most memorably bizarre villains in comic book film history, which deserves a little respect.
Gabriel in Constantine (2005)
Constantine wasn't as big as DC likely would have hoped, and it only got a 46 percent overall on Rotten Tomatoes. That being said, it also features several incredible villains worthy of acclaim, from the terrifyingly cool Vermin Man (a mishmash of numerous creepy crawlies in the shape of a human) to Satan himself, played by the never-not-awesome Peter Stormare. And then there's Gabriel.
Gabriel is an archangel, so you'd think this would be a good character, but you'd be super wrong. As far as angels go, Gabriel is pretty mixed up and has a real penchant for sowing chaos. It is Gabriel, after all, who tries to bring about Hell on Earth for the purpose of seeing which humans are worthy of God's love and ascending to Heaven. Pretty crappy plan, overall.
Played by Tilda Swinton, another example of stellar casting in this movie, Gabriel is an eternal optimist with a streak of myopic cruelty. Even in defeat, shorn of wings and cast down from Heaven, Gabriel still has words of encouragement for John Constantine. You have to love a villain who commits to their madness even when all is lost.
The Russian in The Punisher (2004)
The history of WWE Superstars on film is spotty at best. Did you ever see Thunder in Paradise or Santa with Muscles? Of course you didn’t, nor should you have. And while The Rock is pretty great in most of what he does, let us not forget the contributions of Big Daddy Diesel, Kevin Nash, as The Russian in 2004's The Punisher.
Looking like the peyote-induced nightmare version of Waldo crossed with an anime character on steroids, The Russian doesn't even speak in his role. He shows up specifically to beat Frank Castle to death to the operatic sounds of La Donna E Mobile. The whole scene is wonderfully constructed and fun to watch and the Russian just keeps coming. He's unrelenting and terrifyingly weird with his striped shirt and relative immunity to pain. He needs no exposition, no endless dialog, or silly motivations. He's just walking violence in a movie about violence. Plus, when he loses, he loses super bad.
Tokka and Rahzar in TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Vanilla Ice wasn't the only awesome part of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, don't let anyone tell you different. These early '90s Turtles movies didn't have the budget and effects of Michael Bay's later films, but they had some heart. And Corey Feldman's voice. And part 2 had Tokka and Rahzar.
Fans may have wanted Bebop and Rocksteady, the ever-present mutant villains from the animated Ninja Turtles show, but the movie scrapped them in favor of two new original creations — a snapping turtle and a wolf, who are also babies. We know this because within seconds of their introduction the Shredder bellows, "Babies! They're babies! Aaaaggghh!"
As seemingly shallow as an early 1990s movie about mutant turtles might be, there's a certain finesse to the idea of science creating a pair of biological weapons that have the minds of children. These monsters didn't ask to be monsters, and are being manipulated by outside forces towards nefarious ends. This is almost Shakespearean in its dynamism. And the Turtles could beat them to death with their variety of ninja weapons, but they choose to undo the damage that was done to two innocent animals instead. That's a hell of a morality tale right there.
The Unmen in The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)
Speaking of mutants, Swamp Thing and The Return of Swamp Thing both dabble in the playground of science gone wrong, and the results are just delightful. Sure, Swamp Thing is a noble creature made of sludge and weeds, but appreciate the villains. Dr. Arcane is fine as a mad scientist, but the Unmen are just so much fun.
You could dismiss Swamp Thing as a B-movie, because it is, or you could embrace it for the same reason. No one here thought they were making The Phantom Thread. The Unmen really help bring that home. There's a guy with an elephant face growing off the side of his own face, a man-roach, and a guy with terrible skin and a wicked '80s mustache. It's everything you need in a villain party.
This is a goofy movie for goofy fun. A prime example of this is during the lab scene when the Unmen attack and one of them stops mid-carnage to take a pull on an asthma puffer. During a different fight, an octopus-faced fellow gets lit on fire and wind sprints across a yard trailing flames for just so much longer than is rational, before jumping into a body of water. He's just here to look crazy, get barbecued, and run off into the night. That's a good, responsible villain who respects boundaries and doesn't overstay his welcome.
Pearl in Blade (1998)
Blade stands as Marvel's first real cinematic victory. The MCU is undoubtedly one of the greatest triumphs in cinematic history, but in terms of their earlier attempts, Blade gets respect for being a series that really was well made. Even if the third one fell short of expectations. And while the villainous vampires throughout the series all worked to a greater or lesser degree, none are as memorable as Pearl.
Pearl was basically a vampire librarian with the added dimension of being somewhere beyond the outer limits of morbid obesity. You never quite get to see all of Pearl on screen because there's too much to see. This is like a half ton of vampire at least.
While they play Pearl for some lowbrow laughs with fart jokes and the obvious fat jokes, this character has all the makings of a truly dynamic villain. He's very clearly older and wiser than the other vampires, his knowledge is why he has a place of importance. That's tempered by his immense size and cowardice. If this creature was as fit as Blade, it would be unstoppable. The dangerous knowledge is tempered by the ridiculous size, because any good character needs flaws and weaknesses, even if that weakness is several hundred pounds of errant flesh.